April 9, 2006

As is generally known, the figure of the art critic...


As is generally known, the figure of the art critic emerges at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, alongside the gradual rise of a broad, democratic public. At that time, he was certainly not regarded as a representative of the art world but strictly as an outside observer whose function was to judge and criticize works of art in the name of the public exactly as would any other well-educated observer with the time and literary facility: good taste was seen as the expression of an aesthetic “common sense.” The art critic’s judgement should be incorruptible, i.e. bear no obligation to the artist. For a critic to give up his distance meant being corrupted by the art world and neglecting his professional responsibilities: this demand for disinterested art criticism in the name of the public sphere is the assertion of Kant’s third critique, the first aesthetic treatise of modernity.

The judicial ideal, however, was betrayed by the art criticism of the historical avant-garde. The art of the avant-garde consciously withdrew itself from the judgement of the public. It did not address the public as it was but instead spoke to a new humanity as it should – or at least could – be. The art of the avant-garde presupposed a different, new humanity for its reception – one that would be able to grasp the hidden meaning of pure colour and form (Kandinsky), to subject its imagination and even its daily life to the strict laws of geometry (Malevich, Mondrian, the Constructivists, Bauhaus), to recognize a urinal as a work of art (Duchamp). The avant-garde thus introduced a rupture in society not reducible to any previously existing social differences.

The new, artificial difference is the true artwork of the avant-garde. Now it is not the observer who judges the artwork, but the artwork that judges – and often condemns – it’s public. This strategy has often been called elitist, but it suggests an elite equally open to anyone in so far as it excludes everyone to the same degree. To be chosen doesn’t automatically mean dominance, even mastery. Every individual is free to place himself, against the rest of the public, on the side of the artwork – to number himself among those constituting the new humanity. Several art critics of the historical avant-garde did just that. In place of the critic in the name of society arose social critique in the name of art: the artwork doesn’t form the object of judgement but is instead taken as the point of departure for a critique aimed at society and the world.

The art critic of today inherited the older public office along with the avant-garde betrayal of this office. The paradoxical task of judging art in the name of the public while criticizing society in the name of art opens a deep rift within the discourse of contemporary criticism. And one can read today’s discourse as an attempt to bridge, or at least conceal, this divide. For example, there is the critic’s demand that art thematize existing social differences and position itself against the illusion of cultural homogeneity. That certainly sounds very avant-garde, but what one forgets is that the avant-garde didn’t thematize already-existing differences but introduced previously nonexistent ones. The public was equally bewildered in the face of Malevich’s Suprematism or that of Duchamp’s Dadaism, and it is this generalized nonunderstanding – bewilderment regardless of class, race, or gender – that is actually the democratic moment of the various avant-garde projects.

– Boris Groys


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